Ponytails and Pins
7-year-old wrestler doesn’t tap out to the competition.
Writer / Cameron Aubernon
Meet Emalyn Kelly Johnston, one of the youngest female wrestlers Kentucky. The first grader at Wheeler Elementary weighs in at a mere 40 pounds, and is one of the smallest and tallest in her division. Yet, she is as amazing as those grown-up wrestlers over at Ohio Valley Wrestling, garnering 11 gold, silver and bronze medals in the past few months since her first match in late October 2016.
On the heels of Johnston’s seventh birthday, her mother, Jessica Stewart, talked about her daughter’s start in the wrestling world, her influences and their Jeffersontown heritage.
“Both her dad and her stepdad wrestled in high school,” Stewart says. “I think it was one of those ‘let’s see what she’s made of before we try some glitz and glamor’ [ideas]. When she won Rookie of the Year, she walked in with a high ponytail and bright pink shorts, and [her coach’s] statement said, ‘There’s no way!’”
Johnston couldn’t wait to spar on her first day of training, according to Stewart, nor could she wait to train with one of her coaches. Once she was out, she was “grinning ear to ear,” and “could not fit in there with the boys fast enough.”
In late April 2017, the budding wrestler took part in her first Ohio Tournament of Champions. Out of 200 wrestlers, Johnston placed 11th or 12th overall. She’s also appeared in the top six and top four numerous times, making her the first female wrestler in Kentucky to do so. But none of those wins and placements can compare to one day beating her rival — who she has met 12 times thus far.
“She has a big match a Rumble at the Resort at Belterra Casino soon,” Stewart says. “She has a rival. She’s got a rival on the Bulldogs. And when I tell you the entire state knows about this [rivalry], they know. They know these two gun for each other. She literally eats, sleeps and breathes to beat him, every time. From what I hear, [he’s] the sweetest little boy you’ll ever meet, but they have such a beautiful love/hate for each other. They get on the mat, and it’s the biggest enemies you’ll ever meet. And then, they get off the mat, and they’re best friends.”
Through her mother, Johnston says she owes a lot of her success on the mat to her late great-grandmother, Jeffersontown native Inice Beard.
Though their time together was short-lived, Beard’s advice to her great-granddaughter was, “Nothing else matters in life unless you earned it”. That left a huge impact upon Johnston’s heart. As a tribute to her memory, Johnston writes “Nanny” on her ankle tape during preparations for every match. The one time she didn’t — due to a missing pen — she didn’t place.
Johnston’s roots in Jeffersontown go further. On Stewart’s side of the family, her grandfather was a firefighter for 22 years, while her grandmother has been with a local insurance agency for around two decade, and her great-grandfather worked at a local warehouse until retirement. Only her father and stepfather, both servicemen in the United States Army and Navy, respectively, have smaller roots connecting them to the town.
And what of living in Jeffersontown? Though the continuing growth taking place may be uncomfortable at times, Stewart finds the town “perfect” for her family.
“Everything about Jeffersontown is perfect,” she says. “I love the community. I love everybody that’s here. It’s that old Southern charm thing. Everybody knows everybody. Your grandparents grew up with everybody, so you know them. Your parents grew up with everybody, so then you know them. Now, our kids are growing up together.”
Away from the mat, Johnston loves to read and play with her Shopkins, of the former, she has a growing library filled with books at her reading level. She also loves drawing, enjoys school and has aspirations to become a magazine illustrator one day, if she doesn’t become a law enforcement officer first.
For those who’d like to don a singlet of their own, or otherwise follow their dreams, Stewart offers the following, the same words she says to her daughter.
“Never back down, and never give up.”